Monday, January 20, 2020

Rome Journal: Bending Like the Palm

The palm trees which abound are a reminder that Rome is a tropical climate, but in early January soon after Epiphany, the Eternal City boasts a feeling that’s almost close to fall in New England minus the color. Tropical plants like palms are made of sterner stuff. Climbing up the ancient steps from Trastevere one arrives at the Gianicolo, the second highest hill in Rome. On the ascent you stop at the church of San Pietro in Montorio to admire the famed Tempietto, the commemorative tomb built by Donato Bramante before proceeding past the auspicious gated Renaissance style McKim, Mead and White structure which houses the American Academy and then on to Porta San Pancrazio, which marks the southern gate of the Aurelian walls—whose arched structure now houses the Garibaldi museum. Passing by the archway you’ll make your way to the Villa Doria Pamphili which abuts the biggest landscaped park in Rome. The absence of bare branches amidst the chill is the distinguishing feature of this oasis of urban greenery. The branches are never bare despite the chill in the air. In Rome, you get your cake and eat it too and down the road is Monteverde where Pasolini once lived. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Rome Journal: La Fontana dell'Acqua Paola

La Fontana dell'Acqua Paola
It’s easy to understand why Paolo Sorrentino chose the Fontana dell’acqua Paola or Il Fontanone near the Church of San Pietro in Montorio which houses Bramante’s famed Tempietto for the opening shot of La grand beliezza. The fountain which is actually a monument to Pope Paul V was built to mark the completion of the restoration of an important aqueduct in 1612. The structure itself set on the Gianicolo overlooks a majestic vista of Rome on the Via Garibaldi. It’s an antique yet post-modern take on the iconic image of Anita Ekberg immersing herself in the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Vita—the film to which Sorrentino’s work begs comparison. Actually, the Baroque fountain designed by Giovanni Fontana (whose name unlikely derived from his metier) became an influence on the later Trevi fountain which was started by Nicola Salva and completed by Guiseppe Pannini in 1762. But the earlier fountain actually offers both a more expansive view and pool. Esther Williams could have swam laps in it. La grand beliezza was made in 2013, 53 years after La Dolce Vita and if the light of the Eternal City had begun to shimmer or at least change its hue then the Fontana dell’acqua Paola provided a more 21st Century view.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Rome Journal: Rocco Siffredi

The Via Nazionale runs into the Piazza Repubblica and nearby is the Quirinale where a long line of government ministries are watched over by blank-faced machine gun-toting guards. Il Palazzo del Quirinale is fronted by a special phalanx that are like the mission which tends to Buckingham Palace. One wonders about the stuff of soldiers who're capable of standing at silent attention for such long periods of time. As you walk from Via Nazionale to Rome’s Termini which is one of the main train stations, the atmosphere become seedy with shifty-eyed merchants manning a line of green bookstalls selling pornographic DVD’s. It's the kind of place that Graham Greene's Pinky might have retired to after his criminal career on the streets of Brighton Rock. These relics, in the age of the internet, exude an almost archeological quality. There’s a whole collection devoted to Rocco Seffredi, the Johnny Holmes of Italian porn who’s now 55. It’s a little like Pompei (whose phalluses are still a must on any sex tourism itinerary) a dead civilization preserved for posterity just as it once was, in this case not in volcanic ash, but plastic-wrapped digital discs. The number 75 bus departing from the main train station running past the ancient tourist sites of Rome as it makes its way up the Janiculum Hill, carries a romantic young couple on a recent Saturday afternoon. She boasts a streak of purple hair and he's wearing white-framed sunglasses. As the bus turns into the Via Cavour, they begin to kiss and hug, unable to keep their hands off each other for the whole ride to the top. Once there, they stride towards the arch at the Porta San Pancrazio and its monument to Garibaldi, the great liberator of the Italian people.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Rome Journal: The Classical Naming Period

Kennedy Arena, Rome, NY
You may ask yourself what does Rome, NY have to do with Rome, Italy. Not much when you realize the upstate community of approximately 34,000 inhabitants where one of the primary arenas is the John F. Kennedy Civic Area Skating Ring, which hosts hockey and figure skating events, is no Colosseum! Rome NY was once a portage site for Native Americans and in particular the Iroquois which is a far cry from Romulus and Remus. While ancient Rome was founded in 753 BC, Rome, NY was born in l796. Rome, NY got its name as part of the “classical naming period” when a number of upstate cities including Manlius, Cicero, Syracuse, Utica, Troy and Ithaca derived their names. You have of course Paris, Kentucky and Texas after a French city whose name derives from similar sources, but Rome was definitely part a trend manifest, for the most part, in the center of New York State. Naming Rome, Rome was a little like Mustang Sally or the Hula Hoop. However, one can assume that the choice of the Eternal City conferred the kind of validation that occurs when you call a school an Academy with Plato’s being the eponymous example.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Rome Journal: Monica Vitti Sightings

Federico Fellini mythologized the Via Veneto in La Dolce Vita.Yes, the one that begins with the statue of Christ hanging off a helicopter, flying over Rome's Parco degli Acquedotti. And the street became the grail for a generation drawn to the glamour and sophistication of Italian life--together with an anomie among the upper class embodied in the fashionable existentialism of the fifties. In L’Avventura Antonioni made Monica Vitti, the Madonna of Unhemlichkeit or estrangement. But does that Rome still exist today? If you’re looking to rescue a glamorous and fashionably dressed lost soul, it’s unlikely you’re going to find her or him on the Via Veneto or anywhere else, including the Largo di Argentina, of “Et tu, Brut?” fame. Go to Palazzo Bonaparte on the Piazza Venezia (where the current exhibit is "Impressionisti segreti") at the corner of Vittorio Emanuele and the Corso, one of the busiest intersections of Rome. You're unlikely to find any Monica Vitti look-alikes (primarily because they were a figment of a filmmaker's imagination). Just for the record Monica Vitti is now 88. You’ll have better luck if you step into an art house back in the states which is playing La Grande Beliezza, where the glamorous Rome has a Second Coming. But if you can’t find the real life characters,  Rome is still loaded with sites and you can literally live through the memories of a world created in film by journeying to the places where the great classics of Italian cinema which used Rome as their backdrop, Rossellini's Open City,  Pasolini's Mamma Roma and Fellini's Roma were originally shot.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Rome Journal: Pompei e Santorini. L'Eternità in un Giorno

"Vesuvius" by Andy Warhol
“Pompei e Santorini L’Eternita in un Giorno” is the wonderful title of the show that recently completed a run at the Scuderie del Quirinale. It’s the meeting of the genre of science fiction and fantasy with art or in actuality, reality. For in 1648 BC and 79AC life in both the villages of Akrotiri on the Island of Santorini (dating from possibly 5500 BC) and Pompei (from the Etruscan era) were instantaneously extinguished. The two lost cities were discovered in1869 and 1748 respectively. The mode of destruction in which the pyroclastic eruption brought life to a halt was also an act of preservation that has brought these two civilizations back to life. The German art historian August Mau for instance identified four styles of frescoes in Pompei: the painted stucco Greek, trompe l’oeil, no illusion, and compositional disintegration. “Many disasters have happened in the world,” said Goethe about Pompei, “but few have given so much joy to posterity.” As the curators point out Pompei was approximately half way between the present and the bronze age. Collapse was the title of Jared Diamond's book about natural disasters and human history, but the Quirinale exhibit rendered the other side. “Elle est retrouve, quoi?” eternity has been found again is the quote from Rimbaud on which the show ends.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Rome Journal: Punctuated Equilibrium

Edward Gibbon, author of The  History o the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Punctuated Equilibrium was a theory of evolution propounded by the late Stephen Jay Gould. In a nutshell, Gould’s idea was that evolution occurred in fits and starts and not in an overly logical or Hegelian style dialectic. If you look at the city is an organism, you might find that Gould’s theory is particularly applicable in the case of Rome. Certainly, Rome with its strata of archeology, which Freud likened to the unconscious, fits the bill. Rome is one of the few cities where you're confronted with the ancient past in both a blatant and munificent way. It’s so in your face that at times it’s hard to properly digest the varying strata--from the Etruscan era, to the Empire, to a long period of dormancy (which in any conventional evolutionary schema would probably have preceded the great mature age of empire but actually came after) preceding modernity as part of the Risorgimento under Garibaldi. It’s hard to describe where Rome is today. It’s still got more than one foot in the past, though it’s standing on its own two feet. It seems to shirk the edgy post-modernist esthetic that describes the skylines of many major capitals and large cities like Berlin, Chicago and New York. However, is Rome actually an example of devolution? If antiquity is a form of regression then the answer is yes. The gravitational and inertial pull of the past may, in fact, place the weight of history or nurture above nature in the case of the Eternal City. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Rome Journal: Bacon, Freud and The School of London

“The scream comes to me very well, but I have lots of problems with smiles,” said Francis Bacon. His “Study for a Painting” (1952), is currently exhibited in "Bacon, Freud and The School of London"show at the Chiostro del Bramante. The screaming mouth in the painting recalls the famous scene from the Odessa steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Potemkin. And there were of course Bacon's famed Screaming Popes modeled on the figure of Velasquez’s” "Portrait of Pope Innocent X." Bacon’s screaming figures also prefigure Billie Whitelaw’s rendition of Beckett’s Not I (1973) in being a form of emotional invective. The London School, which also included Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach and Paula Prego, whose works are also represented in the current show, was soused without being Dionysiac. To some extent the drinking appears to have been joyless, desperate and like their abstract expressionist counterparts often on the edge of violence. They drank at the Gargoyle and at Colony Room Club and the alcohol was an intrinsic part of the esthetic. How to calculate its etiology and effects is another matter. One of the early paintings on view “Girl With a Kitten” (1947) depicts Freud’s wife Kathleen Garman's steely blank eyes. She's not so much cuddling her cat as squeezing its neck. Garman appears again in the famed Girl With a White Dog (1950) and its pet and breast is almost an essay in bestiality. Which is to say that Freud like Bacon was not concerned with classic notions of beauty, despite the elegance of his draughtsmanship  The curators point out Freud wasn’t so much interested in nudes as “naked figures.” His paintings like those of the nightlife figure Leigh Bowery are an emotional striptease. Did he, Bacon and the other painters of the London School seek to see mankind at its worst or was their mandate simply to make great art, glass in hand? 

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Rome Journal: Castel Sant'Angelo

photo of  Castel Sant'Angelo by Francis Levy
A poem by the Emperor Hadrian is engraved on a marble plaque in Castel Sant’Angelo. Marguerite Yourcenar translated it in her classic Memoirs of Hadrian, a fictional letter from Hadrian to his youthful successor Marcus Aurelius. “Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again….Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes…” Actually the massive rotund turreted structure, a geometrical hybrid of spherical and rectangular shapes, was, as the words of the poem indicate, originally the site of the emperor’s tomb, which was built in the First century—its popular appellation deriving from the apparition of the archangel Michael by Pope Gregory I in 590. Besides his Villa (Adriana outside Rome in Tivoli) and his tomb, Hadrian was also responsible for the Pantheon which in real estate terms would make him one of the great developers of antiquity. Actually, the Castel, may be Rome’s first adaptive re-use building having housed not only a tomb containing the remains of the Imperial family right up to Caracalla, but also a fortress, a prison and a Renaissance dwelling in which the apartments of several popes including Paul III Farnese were located.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Rome Journal: Civilzation and Its Contents

Picelle (photograph by Francis Levy)
Civilization and Its Discontents is Freud’s famous tome about the price exacted by the social contract. But Hadrian’s Villa Adriana, approximately 28 KM from Rome on the Monti Tiburtini, is an example of the kind of rewards that can result from the more benign aspects of human kind’s attempt to tame the innocence of nature. The Villa itself has spawned its own legion of  commentators including Piranesi in 1781 who diagrammed the 30 buildings which comprise its grounds and which Hadrian began constructing in 118 A.D. the year he came to power. From 1831-6 Agosto Penna produced realistic drawings incorporated in Viaggio Pittorico some of which convey an almost 3-D virtual reality effect. Marguerite Yourcenar was the first female member of the Academie Francaise. Her classic novel Memoirs of Hadrian is memorialized by the Largo named after her which graces the entrance to the grounds. The Canopus with its magnificent sculpture lined pool is one of the most frequented cited structures of the Villa, but the Picelle, the arcaded court and long pool in which a line of cypresses are reflected provides one of the most magnificent odes to man's pursuit of beauty, the sky above the earth below. Civilization. Hadrian's was not unblemished. Anti-semitism became more prevalent under his rule and he famously repressed the Bar Kokhba revolt. Still the ambition and creativity of the Villa Adriana exemplifies the best impulses of an empire which produced Augustus and an unparalleled system of jurisprudence whose legacy lives on today.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Rome Journal: Woody Allen's "A Rainy Day in New York"

Can we say that at the end of one’s career as well as life, all of  existence passes by. That was the theme of Bergman’s masterpiece Wild StrawberriesIn A Rainy Day in New York, the Woody Allen film currently being released in Rome and elsewhere in Europe (but not the States), this occurs to decidedly disappointing effect. All the familiar citations are there from Ortega y Gasset and Derrida, the kind of music played at the Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle,   Central Park (where the film attempts a romantic finale) and even a cameo appearance from Sargent's "Portrait of Madame X" at the Met. The screenplay writer Ted Davidoff (Jude Law) catches his wife coming out of the The Albert on University after a tryst, and a temperamental director Rolland Pollard (Liev Schreiber) who once made a film about Venice, a la Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (l996), recuses himself to the Astoria Film Studios. The protagonist is named Gatsby Welles  (Timothy Chalamet) and there’s talk about romantic meetings under a clock (like the one where Holden Caufield meets Sally Hayes in The Catcher in the Rye)The whole Allen crew is intact with Santo Loquasto on sets and Vittorio Storaro cinematography. Even the typeface of credits is the same. Further, Allen is still attracting name actors, despite the fact that he can’t get distribution in the States. However in terms of its setting, A Rainy Day In New York is a faint shadow of movies like Manhattan and Annie Hall. Trite aphoristisms and flimsy quips take the place of memorable and sparking dialogue. Gatsby’s brother innocently asks about his brother’s date, who turns out to be a prostitute, “you think a girl like that wants to live from hand to mouth?” There's a generational perversity to the film too. Most of the youthful characters seem to inhabit the lifestyles of an older generation and despite all his controversies Allen’s not afraid of broaching the tired theme of older men's infatuation with younger women.The characters of the director, his screenwriter and a heartthrob Francisco Vega (Diego Luna) all fall for Gatsby’s 21 year old girlfriend Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning). Allen should probably be commended for speaking his truth. However, the universe of the move is so hackneyed and self-referential as to verge on being a parody of Allen himself. Allen’s New York was always a wonderful romantic comedy illusion, but in the case of A Rainy Day in New York, it’s impossible to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy it. 

Friday, January 3, 2020

Rome Journal: Repeat Performance

Repeat Performance is a l947 film noir about a woman who gets to repeat a year again. It’s like Groundhog Day. That’s a little what Rome's like. The iconography is so strong and intractable that you’re instantaneously caught in a feeling of well-earned déjà vu. The art comes from distinguishing one past remembrance from the last while occasionally enjoying some overrides, which is to say, experiences that wipe out past prejudices created by the strong brew most visitors receive—and which in turn creates a seemingly impenetrable gauntlet of preconception. Everyone waxes about the beauty of Rome, but you may one day wake up and feel like you're trapped in an antiquity which is not just a street or piazza but more  a time warp that carries with it a welter of historical association. You can, for instance, literally go back to the spot where Caesar cried “Et Tu, Brut?,” the Largo di Torre Argentina. When you go to the Piazza Venetia with its famous wedding cake monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, it’s hard not to feel that history is following you around like one of the pickpockets you’re always warned to beware of. Rome is a like a colorful parent who’s left his or her imprint on you and who you both embrace and want to free yourself from, of course without having to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Knives Out

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a classic whodunit of the Agatha Christie Murder on the Orient Express variety. You have your cast of suspicious characters, all possessing, nefarious and incriminating motives. In this case the mystery takes place in a house rather than a train. The fact that the corpse discovered happens to be a mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) who's become fabulously rich due to his plots adds another dimension. You need a savvy detective in this genre and one with some easily identifiable traits. In this case Daniel Craig of James Bond fame plays the part of Benoit Blanc, who speaks with a big time Southern drawl. Jamie Lee Curtis, plays Linda Drysdale, Thrombley's eldest daughter and and yes suspect and a beleaguered one at that. Maria Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the fall guy or girl is the one figure of modest means and it looks like she’s going to take the rap for a crime she didn’t commit, even by way of accident. Knives Out is pure genre entertainment whose pleasure derives from the venerable history of murder and mayhem. Parsing the plot is a little like chess with all its famous moves and plays. It’s all derivative and one of the pleasures comes from seeing which one (s) are being employed and in what combination. Yet on another level the experience of seeing a movie like Knives Out is the reverse of getting into the seat of a self-driving car. Here from the very beginning, you take the wheel. You’re presented with a problem that has to be solved. And even if you aren't right in your analysis, there’s the pleasure of justice and poetic justice being served as the strands of plot (and it's a very ingenious one in this case) are woven together to a climax.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Happy New Year!

Enrico Caruso
Imagine suddenly finding yourself in a large auditorium. The curtain goes up and every seat is filled. There's a thunderous applause. You find yourself studying the perimeter of the round circle of luminescence in which you find yourself serendipitously placed. You've never been a performer. You don’t know anything about acting and have been given no lines to speak. You don’t play any instruments and are totally unable to carry a tune. This could be your chance to expatiate on any topic, but being given the opportunity to come forth with your grievances or remedies you find yourself tongue-tied. However, before you have a chance to pull yourself together, the tables turn. People start to speak out. It turns out the audience are the ones who will be doing the talking. You're there simply to listen to what they have to say—in this case about you. You begin to realize that the assembled crowd have all been part of your history. And now the familiar faces going back to childhood and leading right up to your adult years, all begin their reminiscences one after the other in chronological order. Some are funny and affectionate and others are sad, desperate and sometimes angry and at the end it's not you who take the bow, but they who you applaud, crying out in the end, “encore, encore.”